The autonomous driving industry faces such a skills shortage that one industry expert reckons each qualified engineer is worth $10 million.
Former Google engineer Sebastien Thrun didn’t pick the figure from thin air. He based it on the purchase price of several new start-ups that have little to offer but the talent on board.
“Uber has just bought a half-a-year-old company with 70 employees for almost $700 million,” Thrun told Recode. “If you look at GM, they spent $1 billion on its acquisition of Cruise. These are mostly talent acquisitions. The going rate for talent these days is $10 million.”
The new rock star coders
This is beyond the superstar coder era, where software engineers had their own agents. It also shines a light on the dearth of real talent in the industry, something we highlighted recently when it came to light that Faraday Futures had headhunted a leading data scientist from Tesla.
It happens all the time. Uber plundered the robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University and in-demand engineers are naming their price tag and jumping ship with dizzying regularity.
That’s an inevitable consequence of a skills shortage. As the demand for talented individuals rises then so will the price they can command in terms of salary and buyout prices for companies that have managed to assemble a competent team.
Is an online school the answer?
Having served in the trenches at Google as an engineer on the self-driving project since 2007, Thrun has now started online higher education website Udacity. The man that is known as the ‘father of driverless cars’ has a simple goal. He wants to educate the next generation of self-driving engineers and give them the skill set they need to follow in his footsteps.
“I’m surrounded by companies that are desperate for talent,” said Thrun. “Non-traditional players are joining the field and they’re all building substantial teams. But the skill set to build a self-driving car is a multidisciplinary skill set and it is just not there.”
Thrun is working with a series of companies, including Nvidia and Mercedes-Benz, to come up with a complete syllabus that will help great software engineers become the best autonomous driving specialists.
Carnegie Mellon is the place to be, for now
Thrun identified the machine learning program at Carnegie Mellon as the best training ground for would-be engineers right now, but it isn’t a complete program and it’s so small that it simply cannot hope to keep up with demand for new employees.
“It’s a very simple instance of a law that is fundamentally true. Technology is moving so fast that, by definition, when something becomes hot, the skill set doesn’t exist,” Thrun said.
Tesla, Google, Apple, Audi, VW, Uber, Lyft, Volvo and Comma One are just the tip of the iceberg and there are thousands of start-ups around the world that want a piece of the action. That puts them in a bidding war for the best staff and there just aren’t enough to keep every company moving forward.
We need a lot of engineers, fast
Thrun estimates the tech industry needs at least 5000 engineers to fill the breach and, as a whole, the self-driving industry could need up to 20,000 engineers in short order.
Self-driving technology has created a vacuum and the new companies are constantly sucking up the new talent. That means it’s a great opportunity for talented engineers and data scientists, too, and the Udacity course could be the difference between a seat at the top table and a polite rejection letter.
The nine-month course isn’t formally accredited, but Thrun’s reputation carries a lot of weight. He’s also promised a final price that means entrants won’t necessarily need student loans and there’s a money-back guarantee if they don’t land a job in the industry.
This course is massively oversubscribed already
But it won’t be easy to get a place. The team received 4000 applications for the first course that only has 250 places, but Thrun wants to expand the program as soon as possible. He sees opportunities in the drone industry, shipping, Virtual Reality and other forms of automation where the skillset his students acquire will easily cross over.
Thrun has also pledged not to simply take the best and brightest graduates from the Ivy League. “The big secret behind this is the top-tier colleges only let in a small number of competent people,” Thrun said. ‘”There are so many other competent people. This program is for those people.”
It’s an interesting concept and at least an answer to the question that has gripped the industry for a while. We know we’re running out of talent, fast, so this course and others like it could be the fast track solution.